Truck brake testing and inspection needs “urgent improvement”

Too many truck operators are failing to inspect and maintain vehicle braking systems adequately, and lives are being put at risk as a result. This is the startling gist of conclusions reached by enforcement authorities both in the UK and North America.

The results of the latest annual “fleet compliance checks” survey by the British government’s Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) were published recently. In a sample of around 6,000 vehicles stopped at random for this survey (not targeted in any way, unlike most DVSA roadside checks), 11% of British-registered and 12.5% of foreign-registered trucks were found to have defects serious enough to warrant delayed or immediate prohibitions.

Brakes account for 28% of the mechanical defects found in British-registered trucks; 44% of those in British-registered trailers; 33% in foreign trucks; and 42% in foreign trailers. The number of immediate-prohibition defects found in braking and steering systems has been increasing since 2011, says DVSA.

The latest survey findings have prompted the agency’s boss to urge operators, transport managers and truck drivers to check brakes far more carefully and regularly.

“Brakes that don’t work, particularly in something with the weight and power of a lorry, can devastate families and their communities,” says DVSA chief executive Gareth Llewellyn. “So it’s disappointing that a minority of operators are still not performing effective checks.

“If we catch you with brakes that don’t work, we will take your vehicles off the road to ensure the safety of the travelling public.”

Volvo truck undergoing brake testing
Brakes account for 28% of the mechanical defects found in British-registered trucks and 44% of British-registered trailers

Traffic commissioners blast truck operators

An even more damning and unequivocal indictment of the general standard of brake maintenance and inspection by UK truck operators comes this month from the eight traffic commissioners, the licensing authorities responsible for truck, bus and coach operating licences.

“Despite the clear warnings for industry, traffic commissioners are still receiving reports about a lack of effective and proactive brake performance testing regimes,” says a statement issued jointly by Sarah Bell (London and south-east area) and Kevin Rooney (west of England), the two lead traffic commissioners on enforcement matters.

“This is not limited to a specific type of licence, size or operator or a particular sector. It is across the board. That is why traffic commissioners are highlighting the need for a change of attitude within the industry towards brake testing. There should be no compromise in any operator’s approach, no flexibility around standards.”

The commissioners highlight a string of recent public inquiries at which serious brake maintenance failings by operators were apparent.

One operator based in Barking, east London, had brake figures missing from all its PMI (preventive maintenance inspection) sheets. Another London operator failed to comply with an earlier public inquiry undertaking to have roller brake tests carried out every six weeks. A Kent firm had failed to put its vehicle through a proper brake test for more than ten years. And a London operator had written “not applicable” in the brake-test section of every one of its preventive maintenance inspection sheets.

“Operators should carry out an urgent review of their brake testing regimes now,” say Rooney and Bell. “This should include an analysis of safety inspection records over the past 15 months, looking at whether the type of test and the information recorded is sufficient.

“Operators must make sure that their brake tests are planned in line with DVSA guidance and satisfy themselves that the vehicles and trailers running under their licence are roadworthy. We want licence-holders to be sure that their brake-testing regimes are effective.”

Concern that lessons are not being learned

Traffic commissioners and the DVSA have become more sensitive than ever to truck brake maintenance by the horrific, fatal Bath tipper crash of nearly two years ago and the publicity that followed.

In January 2017, the owner of the firm operating the Scania tipper and the technician responsible for its maintenance were sentenced to jail terms after being found guilty of manslaughter.

On 9 February 2015, a Scania 8×4 tipper operated by Grittenham Haulage went out of control on a Bath hill, killing four people: Mitzi Steady, aged 4; Robert Parker, 59; Philip Allen, 52; and Stephen Vaughan, 34. Several other bystanders were seriously injured.

In December 2016, following a four-week trial at Bristol Crown Court, Grittenham Haulage owner Matthew Gordon and Peter Wood, the independent technician who had been engaged to inspect, repair and maintain the firm’s trucks, were both found guilty on four counts of manslaughter (by gross negligence).

Phillip Potter, the 20-year-old driver of the tipper at the time of the fatal crash, was cleared of all charges, including causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving. Potter had testified that the crash had been caused by the truck’s brake failure. The trial made clear that the cause of this brake failure was wholly inadequate maintenance, repair and inspection.

Figures published in the US recently by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), a long-established not-for-profit body encompassing various safety enforcement authorities and industry representatives, make it clear that the problem of poor truck and trailer brake maintenance is not confined to the UK. On one day in September 2017 when more than 7,500 trucks and nearly 4,000 trailers were checked at the roadside in 31 US states and nine Canadian provinces, around 14% were taken off the road with brake-related defects.

“Brake-related violations are the largest percentage of all out-of-service violations cited during roadside inspections,” says CVSA president Christopher Turner of Kansas Highway Patrol.

“Our goal is to reduce the number of crashes caused by faulty braking systems, by conducting roadside inspections, educating drivers, mechanics, owner-operators and others on the importance of proper brake inspection and maintenance.”

Roller brake tester
DVSA is clear that it will remove trucks with failed brakes from the roads to protect the public.
Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore is an award-winning automotive journalist and the former editor of our sister title, Commercial Vehicle Engineer magazine. He is also the UK representative on the panel of judges for the biennial, pan-European Trailer Innovation Award scheme.

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